The No. 1 Petit Bench of the Supreme Court, in a 4-0 decision Oct. 16, rejected the seventh request for retrial from Masaru Okunishi, an 87-year-old man on death row as a result of his conviction in the fatal poisoning of five women in 1961. It is deplorable that the top court’s decision came more than 11 years after he filed the request in April 2002.
Okunishi’s first trial in 1964 ended in acquittal. At a community meeting on the night of March 28, 1961, in Nabari, Mie Prefecture, 17 women who drank white wine were poisoned. Five of them died, including Okunishi’s wife and girlfriend, and 12 fell sick. Okunishi confessed to lacing the wine with a pesticide to put an end to a love triangle, but retracted the confession before being indicted.
In 1964, the Tsu District Court acquitted him because the details of his confession concerning motive, preparations for the crime and the act of carrying it out didn’t sound credible. Yet the Nagoya High Court sentenced him to death in 1969 after considering mostly the same evidence used in the first trial. The Supreme Court finalized the sentence in 1972.
Court decisions related to Okunishi’s seventh request for a retrial followed a zigzag course. In April 2005 the Nagoya High Court decided to start a retrial, but another presiding judge at the same court accepted the prosecution’s objection and turned down the retrial request in December 2006.
In April 2010, the Supreme Court ordered the Nagoya High Court to scientifically re-examine the case, focusing on the analysis of the pesticide used in the killings.
Okunishi’s defense counsel argued that the type of pesticide used in the crime was different from the pesticide Okunishi initially confessed to using. It said that if his confession was true, certain impurities should have been found in the residue of the wine. A test of the wine did not detect those impurities.
The defense counsel also submitted the results of an expert test that the Nagoya High Court had ordered on the pesticide Okunishi had confessed to using. When the pesticide was dissolved in water, a high concentration (more than 20 percent) of impurities were detected — a finding that appeared to support the defense counsel’s argument that a different pesticide was used in the crime.
On the strength of another expert test, the Supreme Court said that nondetection of impurities did not contradict the claim that the pesticide used in the crime was the one Okunishi mentioned. The top court’s decision fails to follow the principle of in dubio pro reo (when in doubt, for the accused), i.e., one is innocent until proven guilty beyond reasonable doubt.
The Japan Federation of Bar Association rightly denounced the top court decision, as the case was built on Okunishi’s confession and on circumstantial evidence. If he files another petition for a retrial, the judiciary should follow the above principle and force the prosecution to disclose all evidence it possesses.